'A gift and a curse.' How Gonzaga players deal with outside noise, pressure of tournament streak

Feb. 1—This is typically the time of year when Gonzaga is competing for a top seed and Bulldogs fans are researching travel options to potential opening-round sites for the NCAA Tournament.

This is one of the rare seasons when the Zags are projected just inside or just outside the tournament field by most bracket gurus.

Gonzaga hasn't been in this position since 2016. The Zags won the West Coast Conference Tournament and received a No. 11 seed, a strong indication they wouldn't have gone dancing if they didn't cut down the nets in Las Vegas.

The players might not be enrolled in history classes at Gonzaga, but they're aware of the program's 11 straight WCC regular-season titles and especially the 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. It would be 25 but the 2020 tournament was canceled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic a few days after the Zags won the WCC Tournament.

Players know the topic — will GU's March Madness streak continue or come to an end — is discussed frequently in local, national and social media circles.

"I definitely feel like there's some type of pressure and I also feel like that's also needed in any sport," junior guard Nolan Hickman said, "just so you can have that urge, that want, that fire to win more than you usually feel like. They usually see us around the No. 1 spot and it's kind of the norm, but now we're not really that. I'm glad to have it early than late. We have that fire now.

"It's a gift and a curse, you know. I think our guys are going to be ready regardless of what the rankings say."

Gonzaga (16-5, 7-1 WCC) has work to do if it wants to win the conference, but it can take a big step in that direction with a home win over Saint Mary's (17-6, 8-0) on Saturday.

The Zags, who fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 three weeks ago, have work to do if they want to enjoy a stress-free Selection Sunday on March 17. Their at-large path probably requires some Quad 1 wins — remaining regular-season opportunities include Saint Mary's on Saturday and March 2, at Kentucky on Feb. 10 and possibly San Francisco on Feb. 29. They can erase all doubt by winning the WCC Tournament and an automatic bid.

"A lot of people are going to talk," fifth-year forward Anton Watson said. "I feel like every year it's something new. If we're ranked 1, 2, people are saying we don't deserve it. If we're ranked 25, people are saying, 'Yeah, that's where they should be.' I think it's just what we think in the locker room, the coaches, what we're focused on.

"This is pretty much a brand-new team, I feel like, and it's hard to maintain that success for the five years that I've been here. It's not easy to be a top-10 team all the time. ... People, they assume so much, but we just keep working and keep our head down and don't really pay attention to the media."

What about social media?

"It's a lot," Watson said with a laugh. "I try not to pay attention to it, but it's going to pop up eventually. It's nothing too crazy that I haven't heard before. Yeah, it is what it is."

Hickman has mostly stayed away from social media but made an exception to post on head coach Mark Few's 700th career win.

"It's just better for me, clears my head," he said.

Ryan Nembhard also tries to limit his time on social media.

"We try and just stay with what we got going on in this gym right here and this locker room, and we don't really care too much about the external factors," the junior point guard said. "We know if we win games we're going to be in the tournament. We're playing good basketball right now and we'll be fine throughout the rest of the year if we just take care of business.

"I'm not too worried about what everybody has to say and everybody kind of wants to hate on Gonzaga right now, so we're cool with that."

Since being seeded 10th, 10th and 12th in the first three seasons of their NCAA Tournament streak, the Zags have been a single-digit seed every year except 2007 (10), 2011 (11) and 2016 (11).

The 2007 Zags handled Santa Clara to win the WCC Tournament. The 2011 Zags dropped three straight games and were tied for fourth midway through the 14-game conference season. They rallied to share the championship with Saint Mary's and then beat the Gaels in the WCC Tournament title game.

The 2016 Zags lost twice to Saint Mary's but earned a share of the conference title by avenging a home loss to BYU with a 71-68 road victory over the Cougars in the regular-season finale. GU beat Portland, BYU and the Gaels to claim the WCC Tournament.

"Hey, all is well in Zagville again, huh?" Few said to GU fans during the trophy presentation at Orleans Arena. "The streak is alive."

The Zags are on a five-game winning streak and have pretty strong numbers at No. 19 in KenPom and No. 26 in the NET rankings. Of the top 38 in the NET, only Gonzaga (0-4) and No. 8 Auburn (0-4) have zero Quad 1 wins. Auburn is projected as a No. 5 seed by Jerry Palm of CBS Sports.

Gonzaga's bandwagon might have fewer passengers these days and the outside noise might be a little louder, but the next six weeks will certainly be interesting leading up to Selection Sunday.

"I really don't pay no mind to it because the people that are commenting, tweeting on us, are people that usually haven't touched a basketball in their life and don't understand the work we've put into it and everything that happens in a game," Watson said of social media. "I know people are going to talk, I just hope they stay on that side, and (if) we start winning I hope they don't try to come back and hop on the train."